Archive for August, 2012

Learning shoji…

I don’t do a whole lot of review and recommendation writing on here, but on occasion something comes along that I’m so enthusiastic about that I feel the need to post about it.

Even though it’s been a few years since I managed to post frequently about it, the kumiko and shoji work on my blog still garners a lot of traffic. I don’t attribute this to my skills at either blogging or the work itself so much as the real lack of solid instructional information that’s available, particularly when it comes to decorative kumiko work.

So I was thrilled earlier this year when I saw that Des King had published a new book on the subject. I ordered it on the spot from Amazon.

So how does this compare to previous works on the subject? Well – for anyone interested in this sort of work, this is simply the most detailed and comprehensive introduction available. While I am a great fan of Toshio Odate’s Making Shoji, I have to say that for those interested in actually doing shoji and kumiko work I find King’s new treatise clearly better.

Odate’s text still reigns as an introduction to the spirit and attitude of the japanese doormaker of the past – and it remains worth the cost just for the descriptions of Odate’s own apprenticeship. But for sheer techniques and methodology, King’s book is vastly more detailed and comprehensive. Where Odate is part good-read with instructional details interspersed, King has delivered the definitive manual for the craftsman interested in learning the traditional methods.

The long and short of it is that King (who trained in a traditional program for shoji and kumiko work in Toyama, Japan) takes a remarkably no-nonsense approach to every aspect of the work. There is none of the ‘spirit of the tools’ discussion that plagues so much of japanese woodworking material. But at the same time, there is no ‘westernization’ of the methods and techniques in here. The traditional methods and design are upheld completely. While the author covers the typical japanese tools used incredibly well, he also points out where suitable western equivalents will work well, and the cases where there really is no suitable substitution. The book also includes what I consider by far the single finest english language introduction to kanna (japanese planes) ever written. For that alone, I think the purchase price is well-justified.

This book is Volume I. King plans two additional volumes as well. There is a gallery of the projects covered in this (and future) texts available at Des and Mariko King’s website. The volumes are all self-published to allow him to retain complete control over the material, but can be ordered from Amazon in the US.

I’ve communicated off and on with King via email for a few years now, and I have always found him to be an invaluable resource. His website is a feast of visual and written information, particularly on complex kumiko design. It’s impossible to view it without seeing his commitment and skill. This new book takes it a step further. I cannot recommend a book more highly than this one.

Form, Color, Pattern – Part II

Subtlety is just bull$%!t in evening wear
— anon.

Greetings, dear reader. After a hellish few days toiling away making coarse physical objects and wasting all that potential for ‘intellectual work’ that I was imbued with in school – I’ve finally managed to get some time back at my computer. Ah, the workstation… if my guidance counsellor could only see me now! What’s better than soaking up some full-spectrum radiation from a glowing screen, dear reader? Not a thing, I propose.

During my last post I collected a few photos to try to present a way of looking at the aesthetics of an infill plane. This ‘spectrum’ of form and pattern, though, is certainly not something limited to planes. It applies quite well to furniture as well – contrast a shaker corner cupboard with a federal sideboard and I think the same argument holds true: when using wood, there are a series of possible choices you can make. Selecting material with less variation in color, grain, and figure gives results where the essential form of the piece is given the primary focus. Select woods with greater variation and dynamic range in its visual impact, and the piece tends to be much more heavily skewed toward the beauty of the material itself.

I think that a lot of us have a strong tendency to prefer one end of this spectrum more than the other – but in my experience, it’s a fairly even split. And, speaking for myself, I also think it’s quite common to find deep appreciation for both ends of the spectrum. I can’t say I have a real ‘preference’ for either mode…

As I suggested at the end of that post, though, I also think there’s something of a ‘middle way’ as well. There are certain choices where the emphasis on form or pattern actually changes significantly depending on the level of attention you give the object, as well as the lighting and perspectives it’s viewed in. First example is a plane filled with beautiful south american mahogany. This wood was supplied by the client, and I was actually a bit skeptical at first – but once we’d worked out the finish schedule, the coloring and chatoyance of the end results were really gratifying:

This was finished with a bit of tru-oil followed by a number of polish coats of garnet shellac to bring the color and depth out. While there’s very little grain structure to speak of, in the right lighting the color combined with the ribboning and pore structure of the wood make for a very striking effect. Clicking on the photo will bring up a larger version, which gives some sense of the effect a closer look can have.

The next example is a recent plane, with infills of mexican desert ironwood, is what I refer to as ‘stealth’. The coloring is a beautiful dark burgundy/purple variety, and as with the mahogany plane, the coloring has a marvelous effect on the presentation of the entire shape and form of the plane. It serves much the same role as a picture frame – drawing the eye in and presenting the shape of the infills and metal shell to the eye.

But with this wood, and a few other species, the entire effect changes dramatically with lighting and attention. A subtle shift in the lighting, and the grain and figure pop out.

And this, to me, is a really compelling approach to design. The initial effect, or the ‘approach’ is heavily skewed toward form, but closer inspection brings the subtleties to light – and in some cases, those subtleties can be quite striking.

My friend Konrad Sauer recently posted another example of this on his excellent blog. The plane below is his beautiful K7 smoother design, filled in this case with Bois de Rose (madagascar rosewood). Here’s the ‘approach’ shot:

The owner of this plane referred to it as ‘greasy black’ in color – an excellent description, for my money – and one that, again, really emphasizes the details of the form in this case – notice how quickly the eye moves to the beautiful chamfer detail running between sidewalls and front bun.

Again, however, with a change in the light or perspective the details of the wood start to come to the fore:

And before anyone comments – yes: Konrad does own all the best wood on the planet. And no – there’s no jealousy on my part. not a shred. Not a shredded, torn, obliterated, smashed up tiny little bit of it. Jealousy, that is.


I’m not sure what it is exactly about these sorts of examples that appeals so much to me. I do know that ‘subtle’ is not a term that is often used to describe my personality (blunt is the second most often-used adjective for describing that). I suppose it may be that my appreciation for subtler designs is a way of compensating for that somehow, but since I let my subscription to Armchair Psychoanalysis Digest lapse, that’s just a wild guess.

But then, what do I know? I gave up a plush, comfy life of the mind at a desk and computer to chop, scrape, hammer, and sharpen bits of metal and wood. Who in their right mind would take such a menial job over a highly skilled professional life?

So whatever you do, dear reader — don’t trust me. Never do that.

Until next time…

Form, color, pattern – Part I

The enemy of accomplishment is interference. Fortunately, though, the dunces of the world are too busy aiming their jackassery at the heoric and revered to bother with the merely adequate.

You wanna get stuff done? Better to be underestimated. Get off the parade float, dress sloppy, and develop a stutter; drool a bit too much. Then you got room to MOVE, boyo.

– Sulkin’ Stevie Daedalus

Greetings dear reader. It has been a while, I know…

I would like to begin this post by regaling you with a fascinating tale of mischief and woe – in this way excusing my long season of absence.

But that would have required preparation, so here’s another picture instead:

Moving right along…

a – the pretense

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been adding some photo galleries to my website (mitres, bench planes.) In the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about the range of aesthetics that using wood alows for. The mitre planes in particular can be completely transformed by different choices for infill materials…

Now, lord knows I love me some wood. All of it. More than anything else, I love its absolutely astounding variety.

And working with woods is a fascination to me – where the fine arts and industrial design are completely open-ended expressions of the artist or designers’ “vision”, any work involving wood is necessarily a collaboration between the craftsman and nature. This is one of the most appealing thing about woodworking, to me – whether it’s furniture or toolmaking.

I’ve pulled some photos for the blog because I thought it might be worth talking a bit about some of the choices, and the differences they can make. Today, I’d like to look at two ends of the spectrum I think of as form and pattern.


First up is the quintessential ‘form’ choice: boxwood. Boxwood is prized because it takes detail extraordinarily well. It’s incredibly closed-grained, has a very consistent surface texture, and the color develops an amazing richness over time. Carvers, instrument makers, and toolmakers have always sought it out because of these qualities, and because it’s incredibly cooperative to work with. It cuts and planes easily, it’s almost immune to tearout and chipping short grain. The best boxwood is less like a wood than a pastry.

What boxwood generally is NOT, however, is a graphically interesting wood. It’s rarely figured, and the grain patterns tend to be fairly mundane.

All of this makes boxwood a perfect material when one wants to emphasize form. The proportion, shaping, and execution of detail is front and center. The wood brings a tremendous coloration and beauty to the equation, but the emphasis is all on the forms.

In this example, the client also asked to have the infills pinned in place, eliminating the securing bolts at the front and rear from the design and streamlining it even further. This plane is very steeply skewed to emphasize the form of the tool. I love this plane.

African blackwood, which ends up in a lot of planes I make, falls into this category as well – very heavy on form, though with a much more modern sensibility. I also love this plane.

II – Pattern

Now, as a counterpoint – here’s a recent plane in brazilian rosewood.

This is about as far on the other side of the spectrum as one can get. The grain and coloration of this material is the only thing grabbing the eye initially – this is one of the most visually striking pieces of wood I’ve ever put in a plane. The client in this case asked to leave a bit of sapwood in place as well, making the dynamic range of the wood even greater.

This plane also has some custom filing done at the rear – where the sidewalls drop to meet the top of the bed, the ogee I normally use has been replaced with a much more aggressive pitch and profile.

Normally, a detail like this would be a significant draw on the eye – perhaps even to the point of distraction – but in this case, where the wood is such a dominant feature, it’s relegated to its proper place as a subtler detail. In the boxwood plane at the top, a detail like this would probably ruin the plane – but in this plane it works extremely well – at least to my eye. I love this plane.

Finally, another example of heavily dynamic wood – this one in Desert Ironwood.

Do I love this plane, you ask? Like a writer loves scotch, dear reader. Like a dog loves a scratch, and Dr. Seuss loves a rhyme. Indeed, indeed…

b – The lead-in

Now, of course there are a myriad of options within the spectrum of these planes. But I think there is also something of a ‘third way’ here as well – one that appeals immensely to my delicate little psychoses. But this post has already gotten longer than my day allows for, so that will have to wait a few days until I can sneak a few minutes back in the loving arms of my computer.

Now, though, it’s back to the drudgery of cramming bits of timber into metal shells – a hard life, but someone’s got to do it.


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